Fine Gael proposes to establish a Citizen Assembly on electoral reform

David Farrell

The Fine Gael New Politics reform document deserves a close read. There may be details that any one of us might disagree with (e.g. why waste time voting to reduce the President’s term by two years?); there may be other issues we might have liked to have seen included that aren’t (e.g. the proposal to have quotas for women candidates that were blocked by certain sections in the parliamentary party); but what cannot be denied is that this is a detailed (100-page long) and, in places, quite ambitious set of proposals.

One of the most interesting proposals is the promise to establish a citizen assembly (CA) in the first 100 days of government. Actually the most curious aspect of this is just how little attention it appears to have attracted – at least to date – from the journalistic community. Its significance, potentially, is huge. What is envisaged is that 100 Irish citizens will be selected (Note that these are normal citizens, NOT politicians), through a random process, to serve as members of the CA. This is modeled on best practice in Canada (British Columbia, and Ontario) and also in the Netherlands. For more details, see –

The objective of a CA is to give an opportunity to a group of citizens to have a say over a major policy decision. Like in the Canadian and Dutch cases, Fine Gael’s intention is that this CA should have a say over (1) whether to reform Ireland’s STV electoral system and, if so, (2) what new electoral system should be proposed to the people in a referendum.

The work of a CA breaks down into three main stages. First, there is a ‘learning phase’, a political science boot camp in which the members of the CA are educated about electoral systems: what are there main elements; what are the different types of electoral systems; the pros and cons of one system over another; issues to consider in the design of electoral systems, and so on.

Second, there is a ‘consultation phase’, in which the CA members go out and about the country taking soundings from relevant groups; meeting with other citizens to hear their views. The third, and final stage is the ‘deliberative phase’, when the CA members discuss and debate options and come to a decision. In British Columbia, the CA members opted to replace their British-type first-past-the-post electoral system with the Irish single transferable vote. In Ontario, the CA members also decided to propose dropping first-past-the-post, but this time preferring to replace it with the German mixed-member system. In the Netherlands, by contrast, the CA members decided to stick with the existing Dutch PR-list system.

Once the CA members have decided the matter returns to the politicians. It is, then, crucially important that two things happen. First – assuming the CA decision is to propose a new electoral system – then this proposal must be presented (precisely as worded by the CA) to the electorate in a referendum; it is crucially important that the politicians do not interfere in this in any way. Second, it is very important that in the referendum campaign there are plenty of funds to ensure a proper public education campaign, so as to give all citizens an opportunity to learn enough of the details of the proposal to give the matter proper consideration.

Fine Gael have made an important step today in making this explicit proposal to establish a citizen assembly, thereby giving back power to the citizens of this state in determining how our politicians should be elected. The questions now are: (1) will this promise make it into the party’s manifesto, and (2) if they are actually elected to government, will they actually meet this promise?

They should be encouraged in every way possible….

12 thoughts on “Fine Gael proposes to establish a Citizen Assembly on electoral reform

  1. How does this give power back to the citizens of the state? All you’re doing is swapping a group of citizens chosen by the average voter, for one who have been chosen by no one.

    If anything, this would remove power from the citizens of the state, not grant it.

  2. You obviously like this idea. But in your post, you just say how it might operate. But what are the advantages to the country (as opposed to the 100 people) of such a CA? What problems will it solve? Are the 100 going to be given real decision making power a lá Athenian democracy? Then aren’t they going to be unduly influenced by the poltiical scientists giveing them the training? Or if coming up with some wording for referendum proposals by their legal advisers? If they aren’t given any powers, then won’t they just be ignored?
    It seems to me to be a nice idea that no one would actually want to oppose, but could end up being pointless.
    Sorry for always being so negative!

  3. The value of the Citizen’s Assembly will be that it will provide a forum for a proper discussion of electoral reform. As is fairly obvious from the Committee on the Constitution and what is known about the debate within Fine Gael there is not a great deal of appetite for reforming the electoral system amongst the elected parliamentarians.

    This may be because of their obvious attachment to a system which elects them, or alternatively – the view to which I would subscribe – that the case for electoral reform has not been convincingly made and the ‘excessive’ constituency focus, where it exists amongst TDs, is the rational result of TDs doing what they can and not what they cannot, and the focus of reform efforts (as in this document) should be on parliamentary practice than electoral reform.

    Irrespective of which, by creating a Citizens’ Assembly, a jury of our peers will be able to make a judgement on the need or otherwise for such reform, and the type of such reform. This will prevent the case for inertia being dismissed as “sure, turkey’s won’t vote for Christmas” or the case for change being associated negatively with one political party (as was the case in the two previous electoral reform referenda).

    With regard to the excessive influence of “undue influence”, I would hope that political scientists would be in a position to impart their training in a fair manner as you would expect a judge in a court case to do.

  4. @ Eoin – I think that John’s point above is exactly why a CA may prove to be a useful exercise. Any electoral reform put forward by politicians will be subject to attack on the basis that it is being made in the interest of those who propose the reform. At least the CA’s proposals would be free of this sort of perceived bias.

    The point that you make regarding the fact that no powers are specified occurred to me as I was reading the document. I’m pretty sure that in BC there was a commitment to hold a referendum on the CA’s proposals (though with a super-majority requirement which their proposed system failed to achieve). As I said in previous post, this aspect of the document seems rather hastily contrived – most probably it represented a politically expedient way of dropping the 15-seat list proposal that attracted so much criticism when it was leaked.

  5. Here’s some initial attempts at a response to some of the points raised to date:

    First, by randomly selecting a group of citizens, who are not themselves elected politicians, you are giving a big say to Irish citizens in redesigning the electoral system used to elect our political elite. But ultimately, it is we, the voters, who will have the final say. Like any constitutional reform this would have to be put to the voters in a referendum.

    Second, and following, if electoral reform is seen as one of the ways of helping to resolve our situation, then we need to have a proposal that will have some chance of being passed by citizens. Who in their right mind truly believes that the politicians, by themselves, are going to manage to design a new electoral system that will pass muster with voters? We will all be looking for the inevitable features of electoral system design that will be trying to protect the interests of the sponsoring party. The only way to ever resolve this conundrum is to give the design of the electoral system over to the citizens.

    Third, and reiterating what I said in my first note — it is IMPERATIVE that, if the result of the CA’s deliberations is in favour of a new electoral system, then their proposals MUST go directly, and unadulturated to the people for a referendum vote. The politicians must not be allowed to interfere with the referendum question or the system that is designed.

    Fourth, what we know from the research that was carried out on the three CAs to date (British Columbia, Ontario and Netherlands) is that there was no evidence of expert/trainer bias influencing the results; and that the members developed genuine informed expertise about the subject-matter. A great study is about to be published on this which reports on detailed analysis that was carried out on the CA members.

  6. @David
    “if electoral reform is seen as one of the ways of helping to resolve our situation”

    I remain to be convinced that electoral reform will help resolve our situation in any way whatsoever.

    Discussing it is a major distraction from setting out how power is acquired, exercised, controlled and transferred.

    Why not have a CA on this?

    There may be more on this in the FG document which I hve yet to read.

  7. @Donal
    The FG document has a lot more to say than just about electoral reform. But I most certainly do not see it as anything like the last word. This is merely a good start to a debate that still has a long way to go. Hopefully, before too long, the other parties will follow through with their own proposals. And hopefully too as many of us (outside the parties) as possible will make sufficient noise and clamour to give the political reform agenda generally a real push.

  8. In a free society, the citizens should be allowed to do everything that is not forbidden by law and the government should be forbidden from doing anything that is not permitted by law. Thus a free society should be governed by two kinds of laws: ordinary laws and constitutional laws. These two kinds of laws should be created by two separate bodies: a legislative assembly and a constituent assembly. And the electoral process should be the responsibility of the constituent assembly.

    Citizens’ assemblies are terrible ways to design electoral systems. They are made up of people who have not a clue about electoral systems and, as shown twice in Canada, who are liable to be manipulated, by the people chosen to guide them, to design horrible systems that the people will reject.

  9. I like the idea of the Citizens’ Assembly but I would think that we have to be wary as a small country as to what the degree of certainty is that we can be sure that these citizens will be coming to the process with genuinely open minds.

    The Frank Luntz exercise (which was intended as a nice gimmick for RTE, but then taken up by the media as really meaning something) was badly skewed when it emerged (of course well after the fact ) that some of the supposedly floating voters were in fact members of political parties.

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  11. Both the British Columbia and Ontario Citizens’ Assemblies ran out of time during the deliberation phase, and did not have enough time for public discussion afterwards. Ontario tried to learn from BC in this regard, and start earlier. Unfortunately for the Ontario process, an extra step got inserted into it, which held it up for the better part of a year, and it ended up in exactly the same time crunch as BC. A lesson for Ireland there.

    Ontario’s had an Academic Reference Panel ensuring a wide range of alternatives were considered, and an Academic Director for the learning phase who was an expert educator rather than a specialist in electoral systems; he coordinated a series of presentations. This was a widely praised approach.

    And by the way, the Netherlands CA did not recommend the status quo: it recommended an interesting semi-open list variant more like the Belgian system (but with national lists) than their existing list system, but with a different mechanism than Belgium’s. Their model gave voters more power; as one would expect, this was a common objective in the work of all three CAs. The weakness in the Netherlands experience was the lack of a commitment to a referendum, so it smelled like a waste of time, and in the result, it was.

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